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Ezra Pound’s influence on the development of poetry in the twentieth century has perhaps been greater than that of any other poet. Few writers have devoted as much energy to the advancement of the arts in general. Through his criticism and translations, as well as in his own poetry, particularly in the Cantos, Pound explored poetic traditions from different cultures ranging from ancient Greece and China to England and America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Literary Experiences
Born to Homer and Isabel Weston Pound in the frontier town of Hailey, Idaho, in 1885, and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia from June 1889 on, Pound had a rather ordinary middle-class upbringing but extraordinary personal ambitions. in his fifteenth year he decided that by age thirty he would know more about poetry than any man living.
Pound attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1901, and it was there he met several individuals who would influence him greatly through the years. William Carlos Williams and Pound would begin a friendship which would continue, despite a variety of stand-offs— largely on Williams’s part—until Williams’s death in 1963. Pound also befriended poet Hilda Doolittle (who wrote under the initials ”H. D.”), to whom he was briefly engaged.
He transferred to Hamilton College in 1903, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1905. He again attended the University of Pennsylvania, and he received an M. A. in Romance languages in 1907. He abandoned pursuit of a Ph.D. after failing a course on the history of literary criticism. in the fall of 1907, he received an appointment as an instructor in Romance languages at Wabash College in Indiana, but he was fired early in 1908. Though it was probably not clear to Pound at the time, this event ini-tiated a break, not only with American academic life, but with America.
Early Career in London and the Imagists
In February 1908, Pound sailed from New York to Gibraltar. He spent three months in Venice, and although he was short of money, the city was an especially rich source of romantic inspiration for his poetry. He collected forty-four of his poems and published them himself in Venice under the title, A Lume Spento, in June 1908. Soon after, he departed for London, where A Quinzaine for this Yule, Exultations and Personae (1908) was published.
In February 1909, he gave a series of six lectures which became the basis for his first published book of criticism. The Spirit of Romance (1910) examined a large body of poetry, stretching from Ovid to Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare. Pound also contributed scores of reviews and critical articles to various periodicals. He articulated his aesthetic principles and indicated his literary, artistic, and musical preferences, thus offering information helpful for interpreting his poetry. Soon after settling in London, Pound met novelist Olivia Shakespear and her daughter Dorothy, whom he would marry in 1913. From 1908 to 1911, Pound published six volumes of his poetry, most of it a reflection of his love for Romance language and Renaissance works. His abiding goal was to contribute to a general renaissance in humane letters, though his views would shift in troubling directions in the future. His first big step was the creation of the Imagist movement.
Pound founded the Imagists in 1912, marking the end of his early poetic style. Imagism favored economy and precision of language, a focus on common language, and a movement away from overly adorned verse. In this first of the Modernist movements, there was also a determination to draw from classic sources, including ancient Asian poets. So it was also around this time that Pound began to study Chinese and Japanese writings. In 1915, he would publish his translation of Cathay, a collection of poems, mostly by the Chinese poet Li Bai. Pound’s free-verse translation, working from the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, managed to produce a series of translations whose accuracy to the spirit, if not the letter, of the originals is still admired by scholars of Chinese literature.
Pound was even able to persuade William Butler Yeats, whom he had befriended through Olivia Shake-spear, to rethink his own poetic practice, to some extent, in the light of Imagist ideas. In 1913, Yeats invited Pound to stay with him for three months at Stone Cottage in Sussex, and it was there that Pound first heard of James Joyce, and included an early poem of his in the anthology Des Imagistes.
Editor and Advocate
The outbreak of World War I, and its long, painful course, had deep and lasting effects on Pound. Begun in 1914, the war, fought primarily in Europe, was a clash between the Allied forces (which included Britain, France, and eventually the United States) and the Central forces (Germany and the Ottoman Empire). Treaty agreements brought the majority of Europe into battle, where trench and chemical warfare led to a degree of casualties that had never been seen before. Like so many others, Pound was shaken by the waste of young life, and an immediate result was that his aggressively militant tone became greatly muted. After years of sniping at America and England, his writings during this time indicate that his only political hope lay in a coalition of England, France, and America. His poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, published in 1920, condemns the war and the circumstances—including consumerism and a lack of values—that led to it. Themes of this work would also be found in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Pound was instrumental in the publishing of T. S. Eliot’s ”The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In 1921, he edited Eliot s The Waste Land, possibly the most important poem of the modernist era. Eliot, in turn, dedicated the poem to Pound. He also continued his support of Irish novelist James Joyce. Other writers Pound praised while they were still relatively unknown included D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, H. D., and Ernest Hemingway.
Pound was also committed to battling the poverty of his artistic peers. He matched patrons with writers, and connected buyers with painters and sculptors. His disdain for the banks and capitalism was aided by what he saw as the humiliating requirement of day jobs for the artistic geniuses he so admired. Against this background, Pound would become committed to the cause of economic reform.
Paris and the Cantos
In January 1921, Pound left England for France and became interested in the work of Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and the Dadaists. His three years in Paris were transitional ones for his career, a time for reorienting his thinking about his future role as a socially committed writer, and also for making some important decisions about the Cantos, his most ambitious work, which was scarcely begun.
The composition of the Cantos would take up a considerable part of Pound s life. They are considered unfinished, though one hundred and twenty of them were completed. In 1924, Pound left Paris for Italy in favor of an engagement with the strong political and social currents that were flowing through Italy.
A Turn Toward Fascism
In Italy, in the years following World War I, he became a convert to the economic ideas of C. H. Douglas. This system involved removing financial power from the banks and placing it in a neutral institution which would consult only the good of the public as a whole—an assault on the basic assumptions of a capitalist economy. Pound was vehemently opposed to usury, the private appropriation of the power to lend money, and in his writings of the 1920s and 1930s, he returns obsessively to the need to eliminate it from civilized life. In Jefferson And/Or Mussolini (1935), Pound defended the Fascist revolution in Italy as the legacy of the American Revolution, and insisted that the similarities between Jefferson and Mussolini were more profound than their differences. Both, he argued, sought to protect the nation as a whole from the particular interests that threatened to dissolve it. Fascism, like Jeffersonian democracy, understood that the best government is the one which most speedily translates the best thought into action. Pound saw in Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist leader, an image of the role he himself had sought in the realm of art, the strong-willed leader who can impel a collection of individuals into a common movement and who is able to convert ideas into action.
Incarceration and Illness
When World War II broke out, Italy was part of the Axis Powers, aligned with Nazi Germany and Japan against the Allied Powers of England, France, Russia, and eventually, the United States. Pound stayed in Italy, broadcasting a series of controversial radio commentaries. These commentaries often attacked Roosevelt and the Jewish bankers whom Pound held responsible for the war. By 1943, the U.S. government deemed the broadcasts to be treasonous; at war s end, the poet was arrested by the U.S. Army and kept imprisoned near Pisa, Italy. Eventually judged to be mentally incompetent to stand trial, Pound was incarcerated in St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C. During this time, he would compose the Pisan Cantos (1948). He stayed in the hospital until 1958, when Robert Frost led a successful effort to free him.
Upon his release from St. Elizabeth Hospital in 1958, Pound returned to Italy, where he lived quietly for the rest of his life, mostly with his mistress, Olga Rudge, an accomplished violinist. By 1962, he was speaking less and less; neither his memory nor his sense of orientation was impaired, and when he did talk his comments were precise and correct. His psychiatrist’s findings were that, while he was rational and in touch with reality at almost all points, in one area—the assigning of blame—his thinking appeared psychotic. His psychiatrist noted that he was not depressive except in the one area of self-accusation. Pound died in 1972 at age eighty-seven, and was buried in Italy.
Works in Literary Context
Imagism was marked by a clarity of thought and language, in addition to rigorous requirements for writing. An Imagist poem relies heavily upon visual description over abstract ideas or feelings. Imagist poems are generally free verse, and they place no limits or rules on subject matter. The Imagist Manifesto attacked the artifice that had come to dominate poetry and to restore the method of direct presentation and clear speech.
The original Imagist clique—Pound, Richard Aldington, and Hilda Doolittle—would grow to include William Carlos Williams and Amy Lowell, who would become its leader. Having read about imagism in Poetry, she had come to London in 1913 with a letter of introduction from Harriet Monroe to Pound. He asked for permission to include ”In a Garden” in Des Imagistes. Pound’s most notable Imagist works include Cathay (1915), Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920), and Ripostes (1912).
Chinese Philosophy and Literature
Confucius offered to Pound a perspective radically removed from the age in which he felt he had the misfortune to live. The embrace of Confucian thought—with its attendant emphasis on justice and morality—allowed him to pass beyond the problems of Christianity and capitalism, democracy and liberalism, romanticism, and classicism, even advocating the replacement of Greek with Chinese in academia.
Perhaps the best way to account for Pound s attraction to Confucius is to notice that it allowed him to transfer some of his earliest literary principles into the domain of social thought. He repeatedly quoted the Confucian opinion on the first responsibility of government: ”call things by their right names —a maxim that echoes Imagist principles.
Gary Snyder, part of the San Francisco Renaissance and a peripheral member of the Beats, counts Pound as an influence and as a predecessor in the arena of Asian literature and thought.
Works in Critical Context
More widely recognized than any other writer by his poet-contemporaries for his influence on their work, opinions about Pound as a poet range from uncritical adulation to bitter condemnation.
Written for over four decades and in one hundred and twenty parts, encompassing subjects as diverse as John Adams, Economics, Chinese History, and his own life, The Cantos are Ezra Pound s most lasting achievement. Reestablishing a poetic tradition traced from Homer s Odyssey and Dante s Divine Comedy, the Cantos are a modern epic, a poem that would contain and elucidate history, and, as critical opinion would come to understand, contain and elucidate the essence of Pound s own mind. Notes Donald E. Herdeck in Bloomsbury Review, ”’the Cantos are Ezra L. Pound s letters to all of us—the rant, the stubbornness, the pith and humor of the Cantos are here, as first drafts, or widening ripples of the life that became the Cantos.”
A work unintended for the casual reader, their significance was recognized early. In a 1931 review, the critic Dudley Fitts called the Cantos ”without any doubt, the most ambitious poetic conception of our day.” The long poem, however, presents innumerable difficulties to its readers. In 1927, when a draft of XVI Cantos appeared, his old friend, William Carlos Williams, lamented, ”Pound has sought to communicate his poetry to us and failed. It is a tragedy, since he is our best poet.”
Critics have produced a host of explanatory texts designed to help readers understand and evaluate the Cantos. George Kearns in his Guide to Ezra Pound’s Selected Cantos warns that such understanding requires a significant investment, time-wise, since if ”one wants to read even a single canto, one must assemble information from a great many sources.” Notably, it was during his imprisonment in Italy that Pound completed the Pisan Cantos (1948), which Paul L. Montgomery of the New York Times called ”among the masterpieces of this century.” The poems won him the Bollingen Prize in 1949.
Poet Allen Ginsberg reported that Pound had ”felt that the Cantos were ‘stupidity and ignorance all the way through,’ and were a failure and a ‘mess.”’ Ginsberg responded that the Cantos ”were an accurate representation of his mind . . . a model of his consciousness over a fifty-year time span—they were a great human achievement.”
- Bell, Ian F. A. Critic as Scientist: The Modernist Poetics of Ezra Pound. London and New York: Methuen, 1981.
- Davie, Donald. Ezra Pound. New York: Viking, 1976. de Rachewiltz, Mary. Discretions. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
- Doolittle, Hilda. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound by H. D. New York: New Directions, 1985.
- Eastman, Barbara. Ezra Pound’s Cantos: The Story of the Text. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine, 1979.
- Eliot, T. S. Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry. New York: Knopf, 1917.
- Heyman, C. David. Ezra Pound: The Last Rower. New York: Viking, 1976.
- Moody, A. David. Ezra Pound: Poet I: The Young Genius 1885-1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Wilhelm, James H. The American Roots of Ezra Pound . New York: Garland, 1985.
- Smith, Dinitia. ”Cathedral Bars Ezra Pound from its Poets’ Corner.” The New York Times (October 23, 1999).
- Retrieved December 3, 2008, from http:// www.writing.upenn.edu/ ~aflreis/88/imagism-def. html.
- Wilmer, Clive. Pound’s Life and Career. Retrieved December 3, 2008, from http://www.english. uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/bio.htm.
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